Barry Jackson

A close look at what the Miami Heat is getting with its new center combination

Bam Adebayo already has elicited some of the highest praise imaginable for a player who has not yet started 50 NBA games or averaged double figures in points in a season.

Heat executive Alonzo Mourning famously said, a year ago, that “I know he is going to be the best player in our organization. He will lead our franchise one day to the promised land. We are going to raise his jersey in the rafters one day.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra, unprompted, said after the season that Adebayo “really measured out as one of the top centers in the league.”

Even before Hassan Whiteside was shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers last week, there was little doubt that Adebayo would be the Heat’s starting center this season, and now there is no doubt.

So how will the Adebayo/Meyers Leonard center combo be different from the Adebayo/Whiteside pairing?

Some points to consider:

For starters, expect less volume rebounding. Whiteside was first in the league in rebounds per 48 minutes last season, at 23.4. Adebayo was 25th at 15.0, Leonard 53rd at 12.7.

Defensively, there will be clear diminishment in rim protection. While Whiteside was fifth in blocks per 48 minutes at 3.9, Adebayo was 48th at 1.6 and Leonard was 137th at 0.5, behind a lot of wing players.

And there’s this: Whiteside held players he guarded to 43.2 percent shooting from the field last season compared with Adebayo’s 44.6.

What’s more, Leonard allowed players he was guarding to shoot 52.2 percent, fifth-worst among all NBA centers who defended 200 shots. In the playoffs, he permitted players he was guarding to shoot 61.6 percent (45 for 73); only Nene was worse among all postseason players who defended at least 20 shots.

And this should not be glossed over: According to basketballreference.com, the Heat allowed 99 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the court — tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nerlens Noel for best in the league for any player who played at least 40 games last season. By contrast, Miami allowed 104 points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the floor, which was still very good — tied with Joel Embiid. For Leonard in Portland, it was 111 points allowed per 100 possessions.

But the Heat coaching staff very much values Adebayo’s ability to defend multiple positions — either naturally or on switches — and that’s an essential skill in today’s NBA. Whiteside, conversely, struggled defending on the perimeter and on switches. So the downgrade defensively isn’t as significant as it would appear.

The new combo should be clearly better offensively.

The Heat was a much better offensive team with Adebayo on the court than Whiteside last season. Per basketballreference.com, Miami scored 120 points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the court — best on the Heat and 70th among all players who appeared in the league last season, tied with Golden State’s Steph Curry.

By comparison, the Heat scored 112 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the court, which was 207th, tied with Charlotte’s Kemba Walker and the Clippers’ Lou Williams, among others.

Surrounded by a bunch of offensively skilled players in Portland, Leonard ranked eighth among centers in that metric, with the Blazers averaging 129 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.

What’s more, among centers who converted at least 20 three-pointers last season, Leonard was by far the NBA’s best three-point shooting center, with 50 makes in 111 attempts, a 45.0 percentage.

Credit Leonard for developing that part of his game. He made more threes in last season’s playoffs (14 in 33 attempts) than in his first two NBA regular seasons combined (3 in 13 attempts).

What’s more, Adebayo and Leonard are far better passers than Whiteside, who finished his Heat career with 538 turnovers and 203 assists in 324 games. Conversely, Adebayo has 285 assists, 187 turnovers in 151 games. Leonard has 338 assists and 268 turnovers in 393 games.

Adebayo averaged 4.6 assists per 48 minutes last season, and Leonard 4.1, compared with Whiteside’s 1.6. That’s a factor in why their teams had far more offensive success with Adebayo and Leonard on the court than the Heat did with Whiteside.

The key now is whether Adebayo will become a more consistent face-up shooter; Derrick Jones Jr., who has been working out with Adebayo, predicts he will take and hit more of those shots this season.

Should the Heat have marginalized Whiteside to end last season, when he averaged only 17.3 minutes per game, and traded him now? Only time will tell as his career continues elsewhere; he’s expected to start at center for Portland, at least until Jusuk Nurkic returns from injury in February.

Last season, Miami was 17-11 with Adebayo starting and 22-31 with Whiteside starting.

When Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk played together, Miami outscored teams by 114 points for the season (the third-best two-man combo on the Heat), or by 5.3 points per 48 minutes and shot 46.4 percent from the field and 37.8 percent on threes.

Conversely, when Whiteside and Olynyk played together, Miami outscored teams by 34 points (Miami’s 16th-best combo), or 3.6 per 48 minutes, while shooting worse from the field (45.1 percent) and much worse on threes (33.8 percent).

That’s why coach Erik Spoelstra could justify starting Adebayo and Olynyk, instead of Whiteside and Olynyk, even though those three-point numbers had little to do with Whiteside or Adebayo.

Besides Whiteside’s inconsistent effort, the fact Adebayo is a better screen-setter (though he still commits too many moving screens) and is far better equipped to switch onto perimeter players convinced the coaching staff that Adebayo warranted far more minutes (28 per game) than Whiteside (17) over the final quarter of last season.

The coaching staff actually conveyed to the front office a year ago that trading Whiteside might be the best decision, according to sources with direct knowledge. But Heat president Pat Riley found nothing enticing enough to trade Whiteside a year ago and really wanted to make it work with Whiteside here before finally moving on in a trade that helped the Heat complete the Jimmy Butler deal.

We’ll never know if a Whiteside/Adebayo tandem could have worked, in unison, for 10 to 15 minutes a game — a pairing that intrigued some Heat people but apparently not Spoelstra. They played just 66 minutes together in two years, and Miami was outscored by 27 points during those minutes — enough to sour Spoelstra on playing them together.

And so the Heat moves on from a player who led the NBA both in rebounding and blocks during single seasons of his four years in Miami — a year before Whiteside would have been gone from Miami, anyway.

Of his departure from Miami, Whiteside told The Athletic’s Trail Blazers writer Jason Quick: “It’s like a marriage. Sometimes it just wears on you. It doesn’t make one person bad or the other bad. You just get remarried. And you come in, and, ‘All right, I learned, let’s get this new marriage going.’”

Whiteside added he wants his Blazers teammates to know “how much I care. A lot of stuff [in Miami], if we did have a problem, it was because we were losing. As a competitor, you always want to win. I felt it was a down year because we didn’t make the playoffs.”

So it’s Adebayo and Leonard in the middle now, and Miami is perfectly content to go this route at center during an era when stretch bigs (like Leonard) and versatile defensive bigs who can also handle the ball (like Adebayo) have never had more value.

Here’s my Sunday post on Heat summer revelation Kendrick Nunn.

Here’s my Sunday post with lots of postscripts and thoughts on many Heat things, including Chris Paul, Tyler Herro, Bradley Beal, Dan Dakich’s criticism of Erik Spoelstra and much more.

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